publisher's note
June 4, 2004


Summertime teen thing
by Bruce Rodgers

Teenagers have got to be this culture’s most maligned age group. They’re chastised for the way they dress, with adults wondering why they adopt the so-called “inmate look”—baggy pants hanging down to mid-butt, oversized T-shirts and an obsession with immaculate white athletic shoes—as if it’s not evident that if one feels oppressed and controlled, one dresses like other oppressed and controlled people.

Teens are bombarded with confusing messages about how they’re supposed to behave. Mass media tells them to be cool, be sexy, be different while teachers and parents tell them to be studious, be celibate, be different—but not that other “different.”

Adults are generally afraid of teens in a crowd or behind the wheel of a car and suspect they are out to steal, bully or get high. Cops and retail clerks watch them like a hawk at every chance, insurance companies label them high risk, their teen clubs are zoned out of existence, shopping malls want their money but not have them hanging out, and everywhere they turn someone is telling them to be responsible.

Of course in the adult world, the road to being responsible means getting a job. Trouble is, it’s tough for a teenager to get a job. “Last hired, first fired” use a cliché.

Since teens can’t vote, don’t look for an outpouring of support in political circles for job creation programs. Unfortunately, that might only happen if it is perceived that teens NEED to work in order to stop them from, say, burning and looting. No one argues against teens not working, it’s just that politically no one cares enough to really do anything about putting teens to work.

In this conservative climate, where “market” forces supposedly rule, that’s not unexpected. But back in the ‘70s, along with disco and polyester, there were job programs for teens. I know, I ran one.

The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) came into effect in 1973. Its primary purpose was to “provide decent public sector jobs for people who otherwise would have remained unemployed.” Federal CETA money was given to local government entities to administer. In 1977, a low-income youth segment was added. I ran a piece of that program that year and the next in Clay and Platte counties while an employee with the city of Kansas City, MO in the Urban Affairs department.

My job was to find qualifying kids, mainly through contacts with school counselors and social service agencies, find jobs for them in the nonprofit sector, including local governments, and monitor their work habits. The kids had to remain in school with passing grades, show up for work and do the work. Usually, I carried a caseload of fifty or so kids. During the summer, I hired teachers looking for extra money while school was out. Then our caseload ballooned to nearly 500.

It was not an easy job, even for someone who possesses a liberal attitude that it is government’s responsibility to help people. For someone who had a conservative bent, who believed in “small government,” the program would have amounted to intellectual torture. As in any government program, those people were there, along with the lazy and incompetent lacking any political leaning one way or another.

By 1983, after President Reagan was elected, CETA dissolved under charges of mismanagement and ineffectiveness. Politics creates tax-supported programs, and politics can kill tax-supported programs, that’s the lesson of the American government. I don’t blame conservatives for killing CETA. Even by 1980, the liberal-leaning union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has doubts about CETA. To me, others considered CETA one of those welfare programs, mainly benefiting inner city kids with parents who didn’t vote or mainly voted Democratic.

But the kids in Clay and Platte counties weren’t inner city, and it was unlikely their parents, if both lived with the kid, voted at all. I had kids on my caseload from Liberty to Weston, with a few in North Kansas City. All were small town youngsters, mainly living with a single mom on welfare or in a larger family with two parents where dad worked all the time just to make ends meet.

Naively, I assumed the kids, their school counselors and the small town governments would embrace CETA. I was wrong. With the kids, it was the embarrassment of being classified as “low-income” or poor, for the school counselor it was having a “big city” bureaucrat come in to get them involved in something they didn’t help create or get paid for, and for small town government administrators, it was putting kids to work who probably didn’t want to work. All the culture clashes and stereotypic viewpoints were there, including opposing racial attitudes.

The first year, I had problems finding kids and their parents to participate. I had problems finding local nonprofits or town governments who would admit that they could use more employees, even ones they didn’t have to pay. I had problems with school counselors who wouldn’t help me identify and publicize CETA.

And I had a boss at city hall that leaned on me about not using all the money that was allocated to Clay and Platte counties.

Being liberal is one thing; trying to manage a program thought up by liberals is way more difficult.

The second year was different. I had parents coming to me seeking a job for their kid, I had school counselors telephoning asking questions about eligibility and I had city administrators wanting to know what kinds of jobs the kids could do. I even had parents lying about their incomes on application forms so their kid could get a CETA job.

Maybe it was the economy. It was 1978, Jimmy Carter was president and that “malaise” word was starting to get hung on his administration. Maybe it was because people recognized it was their tax money and they should use it for themselves if they could. Maybe it was because CETA, though not perfect, was doing something good.

To me it was. I felt that not because the parents stopped being embarrassed because I classified their kid as low income or that the small town people saw me in a more compatible light despite my big city orientation. No. CETA did something good because some kids were changed.

With their first job, they learned something more about life than just being in a small town high school and being poor. Some of the experiences were good—earning money—and some not so good—putting up with disrespectful and ignorant adults.

I don’t know how many benefited. Maybe one, maybe a hundred. It doesn’t matter. What mattered was that our government was involved with young people other than sending them to war.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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